Opinion: Crime's Portrayal by the Media
Dr. Brian Payne
As a criminologist at Old Dominion University, I have spent the past 25 years studying crime – its patterns, consequences, and causes. With other criminologists, we study this topic in order to identify potential strategies to prevent crime. One misconception that arises is the belief that crime can be attributed to a specific cause or a specific location.
In our introductory criminology classes, we teach our students that crime varies across time and space, but it’s not time and space that leads to those offenses – it’s the behavioral context of individuals within specific time periods and locations. This explains why crime increases in certain areas during summer months.
The tendency to attribute crimes simply to a location is misleading. Anytime a crime occurs within a mile of ODU, the media seems to report that the crime occurred “near ODU.” This suggests crime can be attributed to ODU. In reality, the crimes typically have nothing to do with ODU. It’s natural to ask why we attribute the offenses to ODU. Why don’t we say the crime occurred “near Ghent,“ “near the 38th St. Post Office” or “near Fellini’s?” Obviously, the media doesn’t say this because those locations have nothing to do with the criminal behavior of individuals near the locations.
Attributing crime to a specific location – whether implicitly or directly – is harmful for four reasons. First, it inappropriately deflects blame from offenders. Second, this deflection of blame makes true prevention strategies elusive. Third, attributing crime to specific locations masks true problems confronting disadvantaged neighborhoods. Fourth, the deflection of blame creates a false sense of security for those who are in other locations where crime also occurs.
Having read so many headlines that indicate crimes occurred “near ODU,” I was curious how many crimes occurred “near” other locations. Using the city’s CrimeView mapping tool, I compared the amount of crime within a half-mile of my office at ODU and a half-mile from 150 W. Brambleton Ave. – which is the address of the Virginian Pilot.
I found that more than twice as many crimes were reported “near” the latter address. Yet, I have never seen a headline that states, “Crime occurred near the Virginian Pilot!”
Obviously, it would make no sense to attribute the presence of crime to the Pilot. It also makes no sense to attribute crimes to ODU when those crimes had nothing to do with ODU other than the fact that they occurred in a nearby zip code.
In order to truly address crime and violence in Norfolk, we must appropriately identify the causes of violence and address those issues as a community. Doing anything less is a disservice to all of us.
Brian K. Payne is a professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice and vice provost of Academic Affairs at Old Dominion University. He is the immediate past president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and author of Introduction to Criminal Justice: A Balanced Approach.